Almost 1.8 billion patients with cardiovascular disease now have a new treatment alternative to hope for: 3D-printed blood vessels.
Scientists working for Sichuan Revotek, a biotechnology company in China that focuses on 3D printing, successfully used 3D printing to create blood vessels. The vessels were then implanted in rhesus monkeys.
“[The company is] the first to have maintained the viability of the cells with the 3D printing technology,” said James Kang, chief scientist and CEO of Sichuan Revotek, to CNN.
The scientists used biological material, known as ‘bio-ink,’ made from stem cells taken from the fat tissue of monkeys. The bio-ink was patented as ‘Biosynsphere’ and is made up of stem cells in a micro-environment of growth factors and nutrients that stimulate the cells to grow into the kind of cells needed in order to form a functioning blood vessel.
Kang said the stem cells taken from the monkeys’ fat tissue is safer to use than those from the usual source of embryos. Stem cells are cells that have the ability to grow into any kind of cell within the body.
By using the monkey’s own stem cells to create the blood vessels, the monkey’s immune system wouldn’t reject the vessels after they were implanted. Five days after implantation, the stem cells were able to grow into endothelial and smooth muscle cells to help the blood vessels function.
A month later, the grafted cells were completely merged into the monkey’s own artery and functioned the same way the monkey’s original vessel had, the company said. Printed vessels have been shown to support the vascular system, by helping blood flow while transporting nutrients throughout the body as the bio-ink helps the vessels develop.
“The bio-ink’s capacity to develop collagen, a necessity for the tissue to mold into different shapes, is the first of its kind,” Kang said.
He said the company is applying for regulatory approval to test the blood vessel process on humans. Alex Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, said he sees the printed vessels as a real possibility for humans along with other simple structures.
“What we can print right now are cardiac tissue patches and small-sized blood vessels,” he said, adding that they are parts “that have simple, hollow structures.”
Lee and his team have been using 3D printing to prototype heart models in order to personalize cardiac surgeries for patients. The 3D printing advances have inspired ethical concerns as well as predictions of future debate about regulating such technology.
Sichuan Revotek created the world’s first blood vessel bio-printer last year, which is said to be able to produce living tissue and organs. The Chinese biotech start-up wasn’t the only company to make 3D printing advances.
Russian scientists transplanted a 3D-printed thyroid gland into a lab mouse. Cosmetic giant L’Oreal began developing 3D-printed skin tissues for product testing, while New York start-up EpiBone is attempting to 3D print customized bone grafts.
Lee said the practice of 3D printing organs, such as a complete heart, is in the beginning stages.
“[It still has] a long way to go to become a clinical reality,” he said.